I'm walking through Roath, the classic worker's town. Its meshed
terraces spread east from the industrial city. Roath originally stretched
the whole way from the Crockerton East Gate to the Rumney River. Rath.
Raz. The name has a hard, pre-British sound. There's a theory, which
I like enormously, that the city should never have been called Cardiff
in the first place. Its original name was Roath. Ptolemy , the early
Egyptian mathematician and geographer who compiled the first world
maps from the gossip of itinerant mariners, has a place called Rathostathibios,
scratched in on the papyrus, next to the Taff more or less where Cardiff
Castle came to stand. Say that word a few times. Rathostathibios.
You can make it sound like Roath. Like Taff. Râth-Tâv.
Y Rhâth. Roth. Rov Roath. Roath on the Taff taking in everything
from the Ely to the Rumney. When the country came to be divided into
parishes Cardiff, by then already a burgh, became the name for the
western half and Roath for the east. The division was matter of administrative
convenience, no more than that. The Cardiff half, with its Castle,
its quay and its navigable river grew in importance. Roath, with its
hillfort-sited church, mill and manor house, remained a village. Until
the nineteenth century, that is, when Bute's industrial expansion
filled the fields between the two places with tenements and streets.
Roath, capital of Wales. Could well have been.
Where Roath begins and ends today is a matter for dispute. Parts
of its southern extremity have been taken over by Adamsdown, Splott,
Atlantic Wharf, Tremorfa, and Pengam Green. To the north Cathays,
Penylan, Waterloo, and Plasnewydd all encroach. I've always lived
in Roath. When I was a child we seemed to move every couple of years
as part of some financial management scheme of my father's. He theorised
that if you bought and sold judiciously you could make enough spare
to get by on. Not that his schemes ever appeared to actually generate
much cash. We went from Kimberly Road to Waterloo Gardens to Ty Draw
Place to Westville Road. Always Cardiff east which my mother insisted
that I either call Penylan or Roath Park, depending on which house
we happened to be in at the time. It was the same for our brief sojourn
in Canton. When we were there I had to put Victoria Park down as the
district. In later life she actually did move to Penylan although
her letters then labelled the place as Lakeside. God knows what would
have happened if she'd made it to Lisvane. She probably wouldn't have
regarded that as Cardiff at all.
The main highway east is Newport Road. This lorry-choked artery passes
through the site of the Roath Court manor house's gatehouse, past
Cardiff's best old style Brains pub, The Royal Oak, with its second
floor boxing gym, its rock music backroom and its heavy-booted regulars,
and out onto what was once the causeway. The flatland between here
and the eastern rise of Rumney Hill was (and still is if you peer
between the tarmac) bogland. These are the great eastern salt marshes
which, before the building of the seawall, were regularly inundated
at high tide. Here was an almost East Anglian landscape of reed, fishing
henge, and drainage gully. Salmon. Shrimp. Crab. Grass. Bladder-wrack.
Today it's shopping mall territory. Supermarkets, Drive-in Burger
Bars, bathroom warehouses, office supplies, curtains, pots with butterflies
painted on their sides, fitted kitchens, basket-weave dining suites,
emulsion paint, wooden garden ornaments, drill bits that cost £1
a dozen but snap as soon as you put them anywhere near a wall. Newport
Road blazes out along the line of the ancient Portway , the Roman
Road that ran from Isca to Nidum, Caerleon to Neath. It's been here
a while, this route.
To the south the streets of Splott and Tremorfa are hampered by a
dense corrugation of speed humps that slow even the Kawasakis that
leap across them. Road deaths in poorer districts were long thought
to be the fault of addled youth spinning sparks out of the road surface
in their side-skirted, sewer-piped Peugeots and speaker-stuffed Novas.
Research has shown that they are more a product of the amount time
people here actually spend on the streets and the number they need
to cross in order to get where they are going. Still, nothing quite
like seeing a gleaming boy racer fingering his earring as he boomboxes
along at a five mph crawl. On the causeway - the A4161 - it's a different
matter. Six lanes of solid diesel doing fifty make the proposition
of walking to get anywhere terminally daunting. America has landed
among the carpet superstores. You don't like this Berber twist? Drive
next door to see theirs.
I walk it anyway, sidestepping through low parking-bay walls and
between the massed transport of south Wales' Sunday shoppers. The
flat I used to rent in the last south-side terrace block of Edwardian
three-stories has now been refashioned as Dijabrindab Eerwidja, an
Asian grand residence next to where the brick works used to be. At
pub chuck out you could once hear Twist & Shout roaring passed,
up along Newport Road and over towards the Harlequins. C'mon c'mon
c'mon c'mon. A song you could always sing in Cardiff when you were
drunk. I began my writing career here. Tried it as a singer with a
guitar, harmonica harness, bottle caps on my shoes, the whole bit.
I did out of tune, self-penned folk songs. Drizzle-drenched Bob Dylan.
South Wales Donovan. I was terrible. I toured the pubs. This is what
folk singers did, I'd heard. Got in the bar, scraped, clanged. I got
thrown out of everywhere. Even the scrumpy drunks in the Greyhound
couldn't cope. Cun you do Nelliedean? Well sodoffthen. So I went back
to the flat and turned my awful songs into awful poems. Time improved
them. I think. I wrote Welsh Wordscape there, pissed off with Wales'
self-referential tie-wearing conservatism. Where was the future? Somewhere
Roath peters out at the Rumney where the Lleici outfalls and the
once coracle-fished waters swirl dirtily into the Severn. This is
the border. Indifferently the land rises. Roath behind it. Capital
of Wales. Roath - the town that floats.
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